I had heard mixed reviews about Marnie Stern’s live set. I was told it was either going to be her with a band or her with an iPod. I was praying for the former, and thankfully she delivered, performing with a band that provided the perfect backing for Stern’s optimum shredding. Her records have never completely captivated me, but she is one hell of a performer. Everything is secondary to her guitar playing, and you have to admire that. It’s easy to forget about the quality of song when you’re shredding, but Stern never forgets that if the song is no good, then people aren’t going to listen.
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Despite New York’s no smoking policy, Tobacco is ubiquitous at CMJ; seriously, this guy is everywhere. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you will soon. The Black Moth Super Rainbow member just dropped an album on Anticon, full of analog-drenched beats topped off with synth melodies. With pre-programmed tracks forming the basis of the set, Tobacco and a companion switched up synth lines and tweaked sounds to add a definitive human touch. The human element carried into the hilarious video accompaniment as well, which encompassed everything from ‘70s workout videos to ‘80s wrestling. But unless you were there early it was hard to catch a glimpse of what was going on—the unfortunate side effect of the intimate Cake Shop venue.
Despite the bright lights of the big city, harsh reality can quickly creep up on a band at CMJ. Lost amongst the flood of bands featured here (there are reportedly over 1,000 groups performing), Faunts failed to even tread water. Their early-90’s alternative/shoegaze style wasn’t bad per say—they had a really tight sound musically—it just never picked up until it was too late. At a festival like this you have to deliver in the first ten minutes or else you will be written off by the audience, who, in this particular case, were a rather uncompromising bunch—especially when a girl giving away free drinks showed up.
It’s so nice to see that someone like Shugo Tokumaru can still break into the musical market with a sound that eschews pretension and hype. His latest record came out of nowhere and is already one of 2008’s most highly regarded releases. There’s a reason for that. His hushed melodies and virtuosic guitar playing formed the basis of this low-key, but top of the line performance. Backed by a 3-piece band, and a vibrant mix of accordions, xylophones, bells, and whistles, Tokamaru not only left an impression, he left it in his native language (Japanese)—something not many people can break into the American market doing.
By now, we understand the corruption festering under the thin blue line. Call it The Departed Syndrome, or the Badge-Carrying Whistleblower’s Waltz but movies portraying policeman as psychopathic frauds involved in syndicate level racketeering while the only ‘pure’ member of the squad tries to undermine their “mob” mentality have become the new serve and protect cliché. It’s what drove part of last year’s underdone We Own the Night, fueled the flawed but frenetic Street Kings, and made previous projects like LA Confidential and the classic Serpico sizzle with undeniable urban dread. Pride and Glory continues the “been there/done that” dynamic. While a thread of authenticity flows through Gavin O’Connor’s almost too hip to be square suspense thriller, the formula consistently fouls things up.
After an incident in which he covered up a case of police corruption, Ray Tierney is reluctant to get back into the day-to-day business of being a cop. But when several of his brother Francis’s men are killed in a drug deal gone bad, he joins the just formed task force investigating the deaths. This makes his bureaucrat father happy and his brother-in-law Jimmy uneasy. Seems the volatile lawman who married into the Tierney family has been running scams between criminals, offering up “professional” protection and murder for hire scams for the right price. As Ray starts to put the pieces together over why street scum like Angel Tazo escaped the melee, and what his fellow policemen have to do with the dope fiend, Jimmy comes unglued. He won’t let anything, not even connection to the clan, get in the way of his crooked cash cow. And Ray is the prime target to be taken out.
Overlong, overwrought, and overbearing at times, Pride and Glory is all ‘boys in blue’ bluster masquerading as an amped up A-list thriller. It wastes some typical Edward Norton excellence, recasts Colin Farrell as Jason Voorhees with a slightly less frightening façade, and filters everything through that Copland/Prince of the City code of close-knit clan justice clichés. We aren’t supposed to blink when we see policemen “stealing” from minority convenience store owners, or wonder why blatant acts of law enforcement illegality go unchecked. This is the Cosa Nostra as uniformed hoodlums, an often sloppy narrative that equates this kind of “made” man status with “mindlessly evil”. When Farrell threatens a snitch, a steaming hot iron positioned precariously above a baby’s head, we are supposed to gasp with horror AND hiss the villainy.
Except, Pride and Glory misses anything remotely heroic or insightful. It’s one of the most ambiguous movies ever made. When Norton’s Ray Tierney is introduced, we are given a close-up of a particularly nasty facial scar. Turns out, he took a bullet in the cheek during an infamous case. What were the specifics of that now haunting showdown? We never find out. Similarly, Ray is still in love with his soon to be ex-wife, a woman who seems to share his dimly lit torch. They even share a tender pre-Christmas heart to heart. Yet we never really understand why the two are apart, or her actual purpose in the narrative. Pride and Glory does this a lot. Francis (Noah Emmerich, giving his character’s vagueness all he can) has a spouse who is dying of cancer. Yet her only purpose in the overstuffed storyline is to play saintly and remind her hubby of what a good moral man he is.
And it continues. Jon Voight (as the taxed Tierney overlord) apparently has a drinking problem. It’s never discussed in depth. Jimmy’s wife is Ray and Francis’s sister, yet we don’t get that clear familial lineage until much later in the movie. It’s as if O’Connor (noted for his work on Miracle and Tumbleweeds) thought that a kitchen sink subplot approach was the right way to take this material. And since Narc/Smokin’ Aces’ Joe Carnahan is along to add his typical street sass law lingo bravado, we wind up with something that fails to stay focused. One minute Norton is crying with his woman on her doorstep, the next a pair of prickly policemen are pointing guns at innocent people’s heads. It’s not that this material couldn’t work, but O’Connor is definitely not the director to drive it.
Indeed, instead of setting a tone and atmosphere for his narrative, the filmmaker bounces around Manhattan like it’s just another big city backdrop. He utilizes gimmicky techniques such as shaky-cam “you are there” tracking shots to ‘electrify’ the action. All it does is make us queasy and confused. On the positive side, he does work well with actors, getting excellent work out of Norton, Emmerich and John Ortiz (as the troubled bad cop “Sandy” Santiago). Unfortunately, he doesn’t reel in Farrell, who flails here like he’s never thrashed before. His Jimmy is a jest covered in Irish beat bluster. Putting on the awkward American version of his Dublin roots, he’s internally blank while being outwardly unhinged. We keep waiting for the moment his character cracks out the hockey mask and begins splattering teens. Instead, Farrell simply glowers.
Still, for all its misguided motives, biographical blanks, and last act idiocy (a barroom brawl? A Do the Right Thing inspired riot?) there is a natural curiosity that keeps Pride and Glory from completely dissolving into pointlessness. Norton gets us to care about Ray’s quest, and we tend to follow his investigation with a sense of mystery. Of course, we know all the angles and anticipate all the roadblocks, but O’Connor and his crew aren’t overly worried about predictability. In their mind, this material - no matter how familiar it ends up being - has its own inherent ability to grip the viewer. Unfortunately, a surplus of story and an innate inevitability makes this movie so stereotypical it sputters. Acting alone can’t save something we understand by rote. Pride and Glory ends up being too similar to the sources it mimics to save itself.